India-Canada row: Risks of dissent

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TWTB collage: Top photo of Diwali lights in Little India, Singapore by User:Sengkang of ENglish

Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

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The Big Story:

The continuing international row over Canada’s accusation that Indian government agents were behind the murder of an Indian-Canadian in British Columbia this summer.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a vocal advocate for Khalistan, a separate homeland for the Sikh religious minority that makes up roughly 2% of India’s population and the same in Canada. India had declared him a terrorist, while in Canada, his activism was seen as protected speech.

  • This is the first time that India is accused of a political assassination on the soil of a Western country. It denies it.
  • Political dissidents in foreign lands are a familiar story as is the reality that their presence and politics often causes tensions between home country and host country.

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The Backstory:

  • India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly accused Canada of not doing enough to quell Sikh protests and “anti-India” activities within its borders.
  • China has long resented India’s hospitality to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
  • In the 1990s, French intelligence services contemptuously dubbed the British capital ‘Londonistan’. It was a reference to UK-based Middle Eastern and North African dissidents campaigning against the governments of Egypt, Yemen and Algeria, among others.
  • Some 80 years ago, the former Soviet Union had Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky assassinated in Mexico because of his opposition to Stalin.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A novel that covers Trotsky’s exile in Mexico and Communist witch-hunts in 1950s America.
  • The autobiography of Tibet’s most famous refugee.
  • A chronicle of the peripatetic existence endured by Reza Shah, who was forced to abdicate the Iranian throne.

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  • The LacunaBy: Barbara KingsolverPublisher: Harper/HarperCollins

    Year: 2009

Harrison William Shepherd lives in Mexico City with flamboyant artist Frido Kahlo, her husband the muralist Diego Rivera and exiled political leader Trotsky. Shepherd has lived through the romantic travails of his Mexican mother, Salomé, but the exotic Kahlo-Riviera-Trotsky household is something else again. Working as a cook in their kitchen, Shepherd marvels at the sunniness of Trotsky’s outlook, despite exile and death threats. In 1940, Trotsky is assassinated and some years later, Shepherd comes under scrutiny by America’s anti-Communist attack dogs. The plot twists and turns in the chasm – the lacuna – between truth and public presumption.

Choice quote:

“Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”

  • Freedom in ExileBy: His Holiness The Dalai LamaPublisher: Harper San Francisco

    Year: 1991

The Dalai Lama’s second autobiography – the first was published in 1962 – recounts his 1959 flight from Chinese-occupied Tibet, over the Himalayas and into exile in India. It offers a fascinating look at Tibet before the 1950 Chinese takeover. He touches on the geopolitical compulsions that prevented the Indians from doing more for the Tibetans than offer asylum. While praising the freedom he found in exile, the Dalai Lama underlines the hardships for Tibetans, used to a country they call ‘Land of Snows’. Some of the refugee settlements offered by India were breathtakingly hot. For instance, when the first Tibetan settlers arrived at Bylakuppe in Mysore, southern India, “many of the refugees broke down and cried.  The task before them seemed so immense…their only resource was such determination as they could bring to bear.”

Choice quote:

“(The CIA agreed to help) not because they cared about Tibetan independence, but as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilise all Communist governments.”

  • The Fall of Reza Shah: The Abdication, Exile, and Death of Modern Iran’s FounderBy: Shaul BakhashPublisher: I.B Tauris

    Year: 2021

    Iranian-American historian Shaul Bakash recounts the British-Soviet machinations that forced Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, to abdicate in 1941 in favour of his son. A modernising ruler who built the Trans-Iranian Railway, roads, schools and hospitals and emancipated women, Reza Shah was profoundly unhappy in exile. His search for refuge proved difficult and unsatisfactory. A Kahyan Life interview with Bakash notes that Britain’s viceroy in India didn’t want the deposed ruler on his turf for any length of time for fear of stirring up local Muslim sentiment. Eventually, Reza Shah went to Mauritius, which he disliked, then Johannesburg, where he died.

    Choice quote:

    “Mauritius is a prison, albeit a big one. We are accustomed to great open spaces and mountains to which to escape the heat. To us this existence is unreal – a sort of death in life.”